April 26, 2008

Genuine Emotion: An Interview with Sarah Shellman

Violinist Sarah Shellman (pictured) joined The Florida Orchestra as a section violinist in 2002 and recently became the orchestra’s principal second violinist. She holds the Bachelor of Music from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and earned the Master of Music at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. Prior to moving to Tampa, Sarah performed with the Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet and the Green Bay Symphony, and currently participates in the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. Sarah has also performed with several early music ensembles as violinist, violist and mezzo-soprano.

Since moving to Florida Sarah has become a vital member of the Tampa-St. Petersburg community, having coached chamber music groups for the Patel Conservatory Youth Orchestras, serving as a faculty member of Bay Area Music’s Summer Chamber Music workshop and performing as the concertmaster of FloriMezzo. On Monday, April 28, Sarah will again deepen her connection with her community with The String Art , a multimedia chamber music concert taking place at Ybor City’s Imperial Theatre.

Sarah and I have known each other for ten years now and it has been wonderful to see her take on the challenge of wearing two hats (those of concert promoter and performer). We took a few minutes between my opera rehearsals and what has been a jam-packed week for her to talk about this new venture.

In recent years there have been many stories about classical musicians performing concerts in “nontraditional venues”. Artists that immediately come to mind are the Chiara Quartet, cellist Matt Haimovitz and violinist Pekka Kuusisto. How did The String Art come about?

In the summer of 2007 I had a conversation with my friend Dean Hurst (a local event producer and promoter) about the state of the arts in Florida. Many residents of Florida view the state as a second home, and consequently reserve their charitable donations, if not patronage, for arts organizations “back home” – generally in the Northeast. Dean and I discussed how the state of Florida warrants its own cultural identity, as it definitely has both the population and financial resources for it!

Shortly before this discussion I participated in the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California. I returned not only with a passion for contemporary music, but also with an idea of how to “spread the gospel.” The work of one composer featured at Cabrillo particularly struck me as attractive to new concertgoers. Mason Gates enjoys a career as both a composer and a DJ: his compositions combine classical music and electronica in such a way that they appeal to both my inner “serious classical musician” and my inner “hipster”. I see this thoughtful juxtaposition of classical and popular elements as a way to attract the attention of younger people.

Given the demographics of this area, however, we have to walk a fine line between alienating the older generation of patrons and drawing in new audiences. Combining a night club setting with “mainstream” classical repertoire seems like a good way to do this: the club’s regular crowd will hear something they’ve probably never heard before while the classical arts patrons will experience a unique venue.

Do you think that efforts like this are vital not only to the communities that they serve but also to the musicians who take the time to organize them, particularly during what have been portrayed as contentious and unstable times facing both orchestras in the United States and arts organizations worldwide?

Absolutely! To reference my answer to your first question, we walk a fine line with regards to repertoire as classical musicians, particularly in a market like Tampa Bay (i. e. not a “Big Five” city). To keep may subscribers happy we need to play the same handful of warhorses year after year: I don’t argue their greatness, though. Much of the artistic community, however, would like to hear something different; unfortunately, I believe that segment of the subscribing audience is rather small. As a result, contemporary music needs to be showcased by alternative ensembles in non-traditional venues.

From a personal standpoint, as an orchestral musician my two options for intense practice projects are either to take an audition or put on a concert. Any outside project helps to keep my chops, but performing an independent concert also keeps my passion for music alive. Audition preparation can be sterile – though not without rewards – but preparing a recital is always invigorating. Again, the warhorses of the symphonic repertoire are classics for a reason, but my soul craves artistic variety.

Many of the concert series across the nation in cities similar to Tampa have been started and maintained by members of the orchestras in those communities. Camerata San Antonio , now in its fifth season, immediately comes to mind. Are your intentions to start a concert series, and will this be the first of this kind in your region?

Of course I’d like this concert to be the beginnings of a series, as would the other musicians and organizers; however, at this point we’re adopting a “wait and see” attitude until the initial event is over and we’ve had time to discuss the viability of such a series in the Tampa Bay area.

Other colleagues of mine in The Florida Orchestra have done “out-of-the-box” concerts at nontraditional venues in the area. At one point a recurring contemporary music festival titled Bonk existed as well. I don’t believe any such series takes place at present.

This event is quite personal and important for you as well in that you are, in addition to being an organizer and performer, you’re also stepping into the spotlight, performing Eugene Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3, the famous and fiendishly difficult “Ballade”…

about this concert is a departure from the normal concert routine of an orchestral musician: repertoire, venue, ensemble. Even the marketing had to be tweaked to present it more like a club event to attract the “scenesters” around town!

As for the Ysaÿe: it’s a rather dark (albeit flashy) piece, fitting in quite nicely with the rest of the program. I wanted to tackle something alone, and it seemed appropriate for a couple of reasons. First, I had performed it as an undergraduate, so I wouldn’t have to learn everything from square one (consider the time constraints of a full-time orchestral position). Secondly, when I performed the “Ballade” ten years ago – to the month – it basically chewed me up and spit me out! I didn’t play it well at all, and I’ve always said that I would like another shot at the piece. Now I have that chance.

Of which of your teachers do you think – both as a teacher and a performer – when approaching the Ysaÿe?

I have all of my old notes from when I studied the piece with Greg Fulkerson ten years ago, and I am still using both the fingerings and bowings that he suggested (Ysaÿe was pretty specific with what he wanted: there’s not that much wiggle room). However, this time around I’m only trying to please myself and do the piece justice, not “be a good student”. As a result, even though I think of many of Greg’s ideas, particularly in regards to arm weight and bow technique, I’ve adapted them to the way I play now as an orchestral musician.

How did you organize this particular program – particularly the juxtaposition of twentieth-century string quartets and “lone” string pieces?

I wanted to find music that elicited strong emotions to an audience that is not “in” on the classical music scene. In my experience, even the most glorious of Mozart’s symphonies, can be boring to those without any knowledge of classical music. Having just returned from Cabrillo with so much enthusiasm, I thought relatively contemporary (i. e. twentieth-century) music would be just cutting edge enough to satisfy both myself and those in search of a more avant-garde experience.
The choice of Bach was a little more unexpected: I played some of the D Minor Partita for Dean (who has no musical training) one day, and he found the music incredibly moving in a way that I’ve never seen from a classically-trained musician!

All of the pieces on this program are dark, ranging from brooding to mournful to tragic. Without getting into details, 2007 was the most difficult year of my life; I felt playing a program that resonated with my state of being at that time would allow me to communicate emotional content to an audience in a way I’d never been able to do before. After all, isn’t music all about emotional connection? And what is more compelling than genuine emotion?

Sarah Shellman will perform with Rachel Smoliar, violin; Renate Falkner, viola, and cello on Monday, April 28, 2008 at 8:00pm. This concert, featuring works of Ysaÿe, Bach, Barber and Shostakovich is being held at Czar’s Imperial Theatre in Ybor city. For more information, please visit www.thestringart.com.

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